Amid claims of ‘expanding green cover’, trees continue to vanish in Delhi

Environmentalists raise doubts about the city's green future as incidents of tree felling, even in protected Ridge forests, become commonplace.
77,000 trees permitted to be cut down or transplanted in 2019–2021
77,000 trees permitted to be cut down or transplanted in 2019–2021

NEW DELHI: With temperatures in the capital hitting record highs this summer, the discourse on the environment has shifted towards the importance of ‘green cover’ as an effective step towards preventing cities from turning into heat traps.

In recent years, both the state and union governments have claimed that Delhi has the largest green cover among the major metropolises in the country. However, environmentalists raise doubts about the city’s green future as incidents of tree felling, even in protected Ridge forests, become commonplace.

According to the India State of Forest Report (ISFR) 2021, Delhi’s green cover has more than doubled over the past two decades, from 10.2% in 2001 to 23.06% in 2021. The Centre, in an affidavit in the Delhi High Court in March 2023, said the increase was a result of large-scale planting programmes undertaken by several agencies and the Union government.

Citing ISFR 2021, the Centre said “very dense forest” cover has remained constant and “medium dense forest” cover in Delhi has increased over the past two decades, adding that this shift towards an increase in denser forest areas is a welcome sign as it signifies an increase in the capacity of forests to mitigate environmental pollution.

However, environmentalists have raised doubts about the findings of the report. Speaking to this newspaper, green activist Bhavreen Kandhari called the government’s data on green cover “a PR attempt” and a “farce”, alleging that in addition to trees, shrubs and any other green spaces are also included as part of the green cover.

Meanwhile, tree-felling has become more common.

“We conducted an analysis last year and discovered that, on average, five trees are cut every hour in Delhi with permission. So you can imagine just how many would have been cut illegally,” Kandhari claimed.

In 2022, official data revealed that over 77,000 trees were permitted to be cut down or transplanted between 2019 and 2021.

In addition, a large number of offences registered for illegal felling, damage, pruning and concretizing trees in the last three years remain pending, with offenders yet to submit even the fines in most cases. The data also showed that only on-third of the trees transplanted during the same period survived.

“It has become extremely difficult to nurture new trees. Soil and air are becoming more polluted and water more scarce. This is why it is much more important to protect fully-grown trees rather than simply planting saplings,” said Kandhari.

Meanwhile, felling of trees continues unabated. On May 16, the Supreme Court issued a criminal contempt notice against the vice-chairman of the Delhi Development Authority for allowing “illegal felling” of nearly 1,100 trees in the protected Southern Ridge forests.

The court observed that tree felling continued for 10 days, a fact suppressed by the agency despite knowing that the act, without the court’s consent, was prohibited since a 1995 order. The court has questioned the involvement of the L-G in the act, noting that there is material to suggest that he ordered the felling after he visited the site.

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